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Carolyn Hax: Couple’s desires, values don’t match

Dear Carolyn: I was taught by my parents to live frugally, which meant never using more than I needed. I would reuse clothes and keep a car until it practically fell apart. We always lived comfortably but it was definitely a test of limits because our space was only as much as we needed.

My new fiance has a very different view of frugality. He comes from a stronger economic background, and, while he lives well within his means and is never financially irresponsible, he has never had to be frugal.

Now, we’re considering buying a house together. I believe it’s important philosophically to limit oneself, if only as a reminder that others don’t have as much. In my opinion, we should have just enough to live reasonably well, and that’s it. It’s a value I would like to transfer to my children because it implies a consciousness for those less fortunate. 

My husband-to-be, on the other hand, wants a nicer and bigger house with more yard than we could ever use.  But, to me, buying a bigger house would throw aside one of my most central core values: living modestly to make a statement about the importance of social equity.

My fiance’s lack of understanding about this point is putting me on the verge of breaking off the engagement.  Am I digging my heels in too much? Or is it a deal-breaker and is it time to call it quits? – Why Can’t He Just See It?

I’ll start with the easy part: Living according to your values is important; understanding and being understood in your marriage is important; setting a good example for your someday children is important; weighing your choices now for their impact on these important things in the future is important.

And getting this all said is important, because the details that make up these big concepts get complicated quickly.

For example, when you’re living according to your values and sharing your life in marriage, whose values take precedence when his and yours don’t perfectly align? Do you think it’s OK to have issues on which you or he won’t budge? If so, and if this is one of them, then we can skip the rest: You tell him this is central to your life purpose, to the extent that you’re unwilling to marry unless he buys into your idea of economic fairness as driver of all material choices.

Another complication is that there isn’t just one lifestyle that underscores “the importance of social equity.” What if, say, you had a big house, and used it to host charity benefits, or house foster children? What if a status-brand car would outlast any other?

And your fiance: Is he just about desires, or does he have a core? Do you know it well? Respect it?

Which brings us to where it gets really fun: Imagine your fiance signs on to your philosophical program, lives it with you and helps teach it to your kids – and your kids use their 800-square-foot compassionate-childhood to shape a firm belief in as much house as their borrowing power can wrangle them.

“Our example” is up to you, but what they do with it is up to them. You can and should teach values, but you cannot “transfer” them.

Which brings us back to your fiance and the possible deal-breaker. If you and he haven’t dug into all this thoroughly enough to get at whats and whys like these, then I don’t think you’re in a position to break or even make any deals, much less impress future kids.